Immediately, she thought it was a joke. “It just seemed so unreal,” she recalled of the story later known as the Jena Six. “It was just blatant racism.” Wearing a white T-shirt with the words “Free The Jena 6″ painted in red block letters, the Temple University sophomore joined more than 700 students in a demonstration in front of City Hall last September.
It was Addison’s first protest.
As she pumped her fist in the air letting her oversized cowry shell bracelet drop to her elbow, the 19-year-old was brought to tears by the passion displayed by her peers and the realization that “Dr. King’s dream had not been fully realized yet.”
The events of last year – the Jena Six protest, the firing of racist disc jockey Don Imus and the campaign for Genarlow Wilson, a Georgia teen sentenced to prison for consensual sex with a White classmate – resulted in a rebirth of political activism among African-Americans, unseen in recent years.
Many have wondered who is behind this surge. The leader of this movement is not on CNN or holding press conferences on the evening news. This revolution will not be televised – but you may find it in your e-mail.
Today’s generation is turning technology into activism and using the Internet as a tool to carry its messages. With social media sites and e-mail blasts, a story about an injustice can be sent to millions in one mouse-click, garnering support en masse.
“The early Civil Rights Movement had the mimeograph and the Black press. Today, we have e-mail, blogs, text messaging, online petitions, instant messaging, social networking sites like Facebook and MySpace,” said Chris Rabb, Philadelphia-based Netroots activist. Netroots (taken from Internet and grassroots) was coined after Internet users ignited the campaign of 2004 presidential candidate Howard Dean through mass e-mails and blogs, bringing him national support and millions in fundraising dollars. Netroots uses the Internet as a platform to voice opinions and draw online users to a particular cause.
Though Netroots activism for African Americans is nascent, says Rabb, “it is by no means a fad.” Through grassroots petition signing and e-mail campaigns, these online activists raised the profiles of stories such as the Sean Bell shooting, long before the media or Black leaders noticed. Cutting no slack for offenders regardless of race, these individuals successfully challenged BET networks’ negative portrayal of African-Americans and have exposed the faults of Black leaders in their candid blog commentaries.
“Black activists Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton are pimping the ‘man’ in the name of civil rights,” read a tongue-in-cheek entry from blogger, The Field Negro. The mobilization strength of African-American bloggers has been the force behind this movement. These individuals share their views and social commentaries on blog sites that allow readers to comment, e-mail or link stories to other sites. While most blogs are created for leisure and better reflect an online diary, a group of bloggers known as the Afrosphere is dedicating its efforts to the progress of African-Americans.
This pool of activists successfully motivates its readers to political participation, says Antoinette Pole, a political science professor at Southern Connecticut State University. In her study “Black Bloggers and the Blogosphere,” which was the first academic examination of this group, Pole found that Black bloggers had a greater desire and ability to encourage readers towards social awareness issues moreso than their White counterparts.
Most Black bloggers used their sites to engage political activism by suggesting readers: vote or register to vote in elections, sign petitions supporting a cause, attend a rally or protest and donate to charitable causes. Since Pole’s November 2005 study, which is included in her upcoming book exploring political participation among bloggers, Black bloggers have grown from a sparse group and have situated themselves at the forefront of civil rights activism.
The number of Black-operated blogs is growing daily with 900 tracked in March by Electric Villager’s Black Blog Rankings (BBR). A giant leap from the 75 blogs accounted for in September 2007. The sites in the Top Ten Black Blog rankings attract an average of 500 visitors daily. This network has used its heft to rally around social causes and draw the nation’s attention to overlooked injustices, such as in the town of the once little-known Jena.
Though many have vied for credit, the organization of the mammoth descent in Jena was the property of Black bloggers, wrote Raquel Christie of the American Journalism Review in the first assessment of the media’s response to the story. For months after the fight involving the Jena High School students now known as the Jena Six, the media and traditional civil rights organizations were silent.
While the mainstream media trailed in their coverage – even after Chicago Tribune reporter Howard Witt broke the story nationally – and Black leaders stood oblivious to the Deep South injustice, a network of bloggers and Internet-based civil rights organizations reportedly galvanized more than 220,000 people who signed online petitions and contributed more than $130,000 to the legal defense fund in support of the teenagers months before the protest.
James Rucker, co-founder of colorofchange.org, says his group helped set up the fund and organized a “blog-in” where thousands of interlinked bloggers wrote solely about the story for one day to focus their readers’ attentions to the case. Playing catch-up along with the media, the Rev. Al Sharpton said it was through the Internet that he found out about the Jena Six story.
The influence of Black bloggers was first realized when their online petitions brought national attention to the case of 14-year-old Shaquanda Cotton who was sentenced to seven years in prison for shoving a school hall monitor in Paris, Texas. Citing racial discrimination, bloggers called a “Day of Action” where they united under the cause and simultaneously posted stories solely about Cotton’s case.
The bloggers and their readers began flooding the Texas governor and Texas prison authority with letters and holding protests in front of the courthouse. Their collective effort resulted in Cotton’s release and an examination of the Texas juvenile justice system. “That one issue kind of coalesced everyone around one central issue; that’s when we began to link to one another,” says Shawn Williams, creator of the blog Dallas South, which is based in Dallas, Texas. “Before that we were all sort of blogging in our own worlds.”
Cotton’s story was the catalyst for what would become the Afrospear, says Williams, which is a blog site for discussion among all bloggers in African Diaspora, to share ideas and plan solutions. The diverse landscape of the Afrosphere mirrors a movement that transcends labels of class, gender and partisanship. These bloggers discuss a range of insights from conservative politics (Jack and Jill Politics) to Black misogyny (What About Our Daughters) to gay rights (The Republic of T) and are airing out topics once reserved for barber shops and sister circles.
“An increasing percentage of civic-minded Black people are becoming more and more web savvy,” observed Rabb. “At the same time there is a proliferation of web-based resources and other technologies that make it free, easy and powerful for private citizens to amplify their voices and impact in ways unimaginable even during the dot-com craze a decade ago.”
After the Jena Six protest there was an eagerness to coin this political drive the “new civil rights movement.” Though flattered by the comparison, many bloggers avoid that moniker saying that it “puts them in a box” too concentrated on the ways of the past. One precedent they defy in the Afrosphere is the old-age idea that a movement requires a chosen leader. “There’s no one persona or personality that’s kind of at the center of things,” says Rucker. “I think hopefully we’re able to move beyond centralized personality-based leadership that has plagued us in the past.”
Many bloggers write under an alias to maintain anonymity, which Rabb likens to the Underground Railroad agents who could conduct their missions without ever meeting face-to-face. This “faceless” leadership is especially appealing to youth who are discovering their voices through Netroots activism. While civil rights veterans are toiling over how this generation would fall in line with the rules set by their forbearers, they have overlooked a charge already in progress.
“The movement may not be as visible as it was in the ’60s, but that’s because the issues we face are not as visible. Racism and things of that nature are institutionalized now,” says Addison. The events that unfolded last year struck a cord with those in a younger generation, specifically Generation Y, igniting a display of activism and pride. The stories of Mychal Bell (the face of the Jena Six), Genarlow Wilson and the young women of the Rutgers University basketball team, who were object of Imus’ verbal attack, resonated with younger generations. In those cases the victims were the same age as their best friends and classmates, which made them realize that the fight was no longer just their parents’.
For a generation that was introduced to a computer before a pen and a pad, this movement has come to Generation Y’s favorite hangout spot – the Internet. The popular social network Web site Facebook has been instrumental in helping young activists share their opinions with peers and brand their own causes.
When a group of Temple students wanted a Black student union to bridge the gap with the community and create a support system for Black students, they created a Facebook group to rallying the university and the community behind their cause. Addison, an officer in the student organization, says the site has been a viral avenue of communication, with 707 people having joined.
In these tech-rich times, one place these young activists don’t seem to be running to is traditional civil rights organizations. Williams, a one-time NAACP college chapter leader, has seen first hand the exodus of youth from such organizations. In recent years the NAACP has struggled to increase membership and remain relevant to today’s youth who are more likely to meet with friends over instant messenger than at the library – a common gathering place for NAACP meetings. The organization’s presumed shortcomings have more to do with a digital disconnect than with its “cool factor,” according to Williams.
“A lot of the NAACP chapters are a little bit behind the times,” he says, noting one local chapter that has a blog linked to the Afrosphere. “When it comes to activism and advocacy today, it moves at lightning speed.” This disconnection can prevent local chapters from furthering their agendas outside of their regional borders, adds Pole.
Efforts by the Louisiana NAACP and local chapters fell short when a rally they organized last March in support of the Jena Six teens drew only a few dozen people. Though well-intended, their outcome paled in comparison to the whirlwind of support that followed as a result of Internet campaigns. Resources and skill sets from both online efforts and tradition organizations are needed and each could find greater success in a collaborative effort, Mary Frances Berry, a history professor at the University of Pennsylvania, noted in a recent interview with NPR.
The former chairperson of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights suggested that when the NAACP selects its future president, the candidate should be someone who can bridge the gap with online activists. “They need to get with it, and plug in with these folks. All this energy needs to be mobilized, so that it doesn’t become a one-week show,” says Berry.